The emergence of the alt-right in the aftermath of the 2016 election started a long national conversation on the dangers of anti-Semitism. And now the flap over tweets by freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar suggesting that American support for the state of Israel was bought with “Benjamins” raises the question: Is anti-Semitism now more of a threat from the progressive left? It’s a dispute that raises thorny and complicated questions about identity, politics, and prejudice—and, too often, ends in simplistic and partisan answers.
To Omar’s mostly conservative detractors, the controversy over the congresswoman’s remarks (for which she later apologized under pressure from House leadership) illustrates a stark truth: the most widespread and dangerous form of anti-Semitism in our time comes thinly disguised as hostility to Israel and its Jewish supporters in other countries.
Others, mostly on the left, dismiss this argument as a self-serving ploy to not only smear and silence critics of the Israeli government’s policies but distract from the growing threat of white supremacy and outright neo-Nazi extremism that many say is abetted by Donald Trump’s White House.
A variant of this debate is playing out with regard to concerns about anti-Semitism in Europe. Liberals voice alarm at the rise of nationalist, anti-immigration parties (often with roots tainted by Holocaust denial and neo-Nazi ties) and of populist, Trump-friendly leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whose government is accused of using blatant anti-Semitic tropes to demonize financier George Soros and other Jewish critics.
Meanwhile, conservatives such as Commentary blogger Evelyn Gordon point out that according to some surveys, Jews feel much safer in Eastern Europe—including Orbán’s Hungary—than in much of the liberal West. Partly, this is due to anti-Israel, often de facto anti-Jewish animus on the Western European left. There is also, these conservatives say, a more “politically incorrect” factor: Western Europe’s liberal policies have enabled massive immigration from predominantly Muslim countries with virulently anti-Semitic cultures, which puts European Jews at higher risk of violence.
So, pick your poison: Which anti-Semitism is worse?
The controversy sparked by Omar, a Muslim Somali-American and one of the progressives swept into the House by the “blue wave” of 2018, shows how knotty an issue anti-Semitism on the left can be. Omar’s defenders, such as Israeli-American progressive activist Ady Barkan, say that she did nothing more than speak the truth about the pernicious influence of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and its deep pockets. On the other hand, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, a liberal strongly critical of current Israeli policies, believes Omar’s rhetoric is “Protocols-of-the-Elders-of-Zion stuff.”
As Milbank points out, this was not the first time Omar has used an arguably anti-Semitic trope when criticizing Israel: There was also her 2012 tweet which said that “Israel has hypnotized the world” and asked Allah to expose “the evil doings of Israel.” What’s more, Omar is far from the only progressive facing a controversy about pro-Palestinian advocacy that may cross the line into anti-Semitism. Fellow House freshman, progressive Democrat, and Muslim Rashida Tlaib of Michigan has been under scrutiny for a tweet questioning the American loyalty of senators who backed legislation against an Israel boycott and for ties to hardcore anti-Semites. The Women’s March, the vanguard of the anti-Trump “resistance,” has been shaken by anti-Semitism charges focusing on some of its leaders’ connections to Jew-bashing Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan—and bolstered by claims that two of these activists, Tamika Mallory and Bob Bland (Mari Lynn Foulger), made comments at a meeting about the special responsibility of Jews for the oppression of black and brown people.
Yet the nexus between anti-Semitism and strong critique of Israel is complicated—particularly for those who are concerned about “political correctness” that uses appeals to identity to stifle legitimate debate. Quillette editor Jonathan Kay, who has called Mallory an “anti-Semitic loon,” nonetheless recently posted a Twitter thread criticizing B’nai Brith Canada for “crying wolf” by equating anti-Israel polemics with anti-Semitism. “[I]f conservatives are going to yell ‘anti-Semitism’ every time someone criticizes Israel, they won’t have a moral leg to stand on when others cry ‘racism’ or ‘transphobia’ or whatever every time we say something mildly heterodox about other issues,” wrote Kay, adding that he was “sick of this hypocrisy.”
The parallels are there. When conservatives argue that having a campus referendum whether a university should divest from companies allegedly “complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights” makes Jewish students “justly feel targeted,” they can hardly object when progressives make similar claims for black students feeling targeted by a debate on affirmative action, or female students feeling threatened by calls to protect the rights of the accused in sexual assault cases. When a liberal Jewish commentator is branded an anti-Semitism apologist for arguing that boycott/divestment/sanctions advocacy (which he himself does not support) is not inherently anti-Semitic, it’s hard not to think of leftist rhetoric that stamps the “apologist” label on anyone questioning specific allegations of racism, misogyny, or homophobia.
At the risk of being banal: More intellectual diversity is good (though overt bigotry or defense of genocide obviously belong beyond the pale), and intellectual consistency is important. To what extent hostility to Israel on the left is driven by anti-Jewish animus is a complicated question, and certainly, one that should not be closed off to debate. While Israel is often subjected to blatant double standards when it comes to human rights violations, there are many non-bigoted reasons for this, including a tendency to view Palestinians as “good victims”—oppressed “brown people”—and Israel as a powerful pro-Western, pro-American oppressor.
However, it is equally true, as Gabriel Schoenfeld noted 15 years ago in The Return of Anti-Semitism, that “real” anti-Semitism isn’t limited to naked hostility to Jews simply for being Jews in either the ethnic or the religious sense: Historically, for instance, Jews have been attacked both as the vanguard of money-grubbing capitalism and as the vanguard of Bolshevism and other forms of radical subversion.
There is no question that much anti-Israel sentiment today goes far beyond simple criticism of Israeli policies—and that, whatever motivates this hatred, its expression is often tinged with more or less blatant anti-Semitism. (Just as, it should be said, obsessive hatred of feminist or African-American activism is highly likely to be channeled into actual misogyny or racism.)
In much of the Muslim world, anti-Zionism has become entwined—as Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria recently pointed out—with virulent and explicit Jew-hatred, including endorsement of the blood libel and conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination. Even in the West, one can find plenty of instances in which anti-Israel rhetoric lapses into anti-Semitic tropes: The 2002 Italian cartoon that showed a terrified baby Jesus facing an Israeli tank, with the caption, “Surely they don’t want to kill me again?”; CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill’s recent suggestion that Israelis poison Palestinians’ water, echoing medieval well-poisoning libels; a ridiculous suggestion by a D.C. councilman that Jews control the weather; or, for that matter, comments on articles and tweets arguing that “anti-Zionist” is not the same as “anti-Semitic.” More worryingly, anti-Israel animus has spilled into harassment and even physical attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions.
That’s why many progressives’ assertions that the only real threat to the Jewish community comes from white supremacists and other far-right extremists do not hold water. Yes, neo-Nazis and white supremacists have been responsible for most of the lethal attacks on Jews in the U.S. in recent years, most notably including the horrific Tree of Life synagogue shooting last year. But American Jews have also been targeted by radical Islamists, ostensibly in retaliation for Israel’s actions. There have been numerous foiled bombing plots directed at synagogues, Jewish community centers, and a subway station in a predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood. In March 1994, a man who had converted to Islamist extremism after listening to anti-Israel sermons in a Brooklyn mosque shot at a van carrying Lubavitch seminary students on Brooklyn Bridge, killing one and injuring three. (The shooter, Rashid Baz, was praised as a “holy warrior” in a Hamas statement.)
Even aside from violent attacks, the Israel-phobic variety of anti-Semitism—whether leftist, Islamist, or some mix of the two—is far from harmless. It normalizes bigotry and even gives it a righteous veneer of anti-oppression advocacy. This is especially true since, as a number of commentators including Tablet contributor John Paul Pagano have pointed out, current leftist ideology with its fixation on “privilege” tends to erase anti-Semitism—a hate directed not at a supposedly inferior group but at one regarded as too powerful. Witness the claim by Mallory, the Women’s March co-founder, that white-skinned Jews “uphold white supremacy,” or a recent column by Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of the veteran Jewish publication, The Forward, suggesting that Jews should not “tear down” black activists or authors who make anti-Semitic comments because Jews in America have more power than blacks. (Ungar-Sargon, it should be noted, has been very tough on Omar in the latest controversy.)
But if leftists can be willfully obtuse about anti-Semitism in their camp, so can quite a few people on the right. Thus, accusations of Trump’s flirtations with anti-Semitism have been summarily dismissed (for instance, in a recent column by Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel) on the grounds that he not only has a Jewish daughter and son-in-law but is a staunch friend of Israel. Yet there is no denying that, even before his remarks about “very fine people on both sides” of the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Trump was often markedly reluctant to distance himself from his anti-Semitic fans, including the alt-right online brigades that actively harassed and sometimes threatened Jewish journalists and Trump critics. In May 2016, in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer, Trump was explicitly encouraged to condemn the deluge of hateful comments and threats from his supporters to Julia Ioffe, the journalist who had written a somewhat unflattering feature on Melania Trump. Instead, he declared, “I don’t have a message to the fans” and focused on how “nasty” Ioffe’s article was.
More recently, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who denounced Omar on Twitter by saying that “anti-Semitic tropes have no place in the halls of Congress,” has been criticized for what seems to be a trope of his own: an October 2018 tweet warning, “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election!” This is a reference to three billionaires—two of them Jewish and one, Steyer, an Episcopalian of Jewish descent—who were among the biggest Democratic donors in the last election cycle. Yet George Mason University law professor David Bernstein, who is highly vigilant about left-wing anti-Semitism, argued that it was unfair to flag the tweet for anti-Semitic overtones since Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg really are top Democratic donors and since Steyer isn’t actually Jewish. One can argue about whether the name “Steyer” sounds Jewish enough to be a “dog whistle” to anti-Semites; but there is no question that Bernstein’s is a charitable interpretation.
A similarly charitable spirit toward the populist right can be seen in conservative analysis of anti-Semitism in Europe—such as Gordon’s arguments downplaying the anti-Semitic signaling in Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign, or her claim that countries with right-wing populist governments such as Hungary are relative safe havens for Jews in Europe. Gordon relies on a survey of nearly 900 Jewish lay leaders and community professionals across Europe by the Joint Distribution Committee in which respondents in the East were more likely than in the liberal West to say that they feel safe (96 percent vs. 76 percent). But a more comprehensive 2018 poll of European Jews by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) paints a rather more complicated picture.
Some of the poll’s findings support Gordon’s positive conclusions about the East. Hungary was the only country polled in which the percentage of Jews who regarded anti-Semitism as a very serious problem dropped since 2012 (from 89 percent to 77 percent). Hungarian and Polish Jews were the least likely to say that hostility toward Jews in public places was a major problem in their country (46 percent in Hungary and 37 percent in Poland, compared to 52 percent in the United Kingdom, 69 percent in Sweden, 80 percent in Germany, and a staggering 91 percent in France). Yet the actual share of Jews who said they had been targets of anti-Semitic comments or threats in person in the past 12 months was roughly similar in Hungary (17 percent) to France, the U.K., and Sweden (15 percent, 16 percent, and 19 percent respectively). The number was even higher in Poland at 21 percent, though still below the disturbing 29 percent in Germany. One reason for the discrepancy between personal experience and perception of a general problem may be more public discussion of the issue in Western Europe.
It is noteworthy, as well, that about three-quarters of Jews in Hungary and Poland saw anti-Semitism in political life in their country as a major problem—more than in any country in Western Europe except for the U.K., where left-wing anti-Semitism is currently causing a rift in the Labour Party.
When all is said and done, it seems that both the right-wing and the left-wing versions of anti-liberalism and identity politics are likely to breed or at least encourage anti-Semitism—and sometimes, as with the “Yellow Vests” populist movement in France, the two converge. In both cases, there are plenty of people who point fingers only at the other side while using their camp’s Jewish-friendly position, whether it’s support for Israel or support for strong civil rights safeguards, as a shield. In both cases, the label should be used carefully to avoid crying wolf or stifling legitimate debate.
In the end, left-wing and right-wing anti-Semitism are both vile and dangerous in equal-but-different ways, and one can and should be against both. It’s an embarrassingly obvious proposition. But sometimes, paraphrasing George Orwell, it’s necessary to state the embarrassingly obvious.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly referred to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as the American Israel Political Action Committee.